Donald Trump’s initial budget proposal is out — a more detailed version will follow in May — and like the man himself, the plan combines Republican Party orthodoxy with crackpot political theater.
Most notably, the budget boosts military funding by 10 percent and Department of Homeland Security funding by 6.8 percent while slashing, with breathtaking aggression, federal spending on housing, environmental protection, public broadcasting, and scientific research. It would eliminate all appropriations for: the Legal Services Corporation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
That is pure Reagan-era GOP boilerplate. But other cuts bear the messy fingerprints of Trump’s chief political strategist, the nihilistic Steven Bannon. In the summer of 2016 Bannon described himself as a Leninist, saying, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Then last month at CPAC, the annual conservative gathering, Bannon described “deconstruction of the administrative state” as one of his top priorities. If it were to pass as proposed, Trump’s budget would be a step in that direction.
In reality, Bannon, like Lenin before, pursues not merely destruction but a version of creative destruction; undermining the old order in the interest of building a new one. Perhaps that imagined new order was best summed up by the man who drafted the budget, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), when he told MSNBC: “This is a hard power budget, not a soft power budget.” That means an America that is even more authoritarian and militaristic than it already is.
More concretely, the “hard power” budget that seeks to “bring everything crashing down” means deep, across-the-board cuts to most government bureaucracies. When reading the numbers, one can’t help but imagine Bannon smirking as he tallies up all the scientists, bureaucrats, and lawyers who would be fired.
The Department of Agriculture would see a $4.7 billion or 21 percent decrease in funding. The Department of Commerce would sustain a $1.5 billion or 16 percent decrease by eliminating the Minority Business Development Agency and by hammering National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research programs. The Department of Education would lose $9 billion or 13 percent of its budget; “before- and after-school programs as well as summer programs” would lose almost all their federal funding, and Pell Grants for college students would lose $3.9 billion. However, “investments in school choice” would increase by $1.4 billion.
The Department of Energy would take a 5.6 percent cut that would eliminate entirely the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program, and the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program. Health and Human Services would take a hit of 17.9 percent that would do away with the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Community Services Block Grant program.
HUD would see its budget shrink by $6.2 billion or 13.2 percent through cuts to things like maintenance in low-income housing developments. The Department of Labor faces a 21 percent cut that would wipe out Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) workplace safety training grants and slash various job training programs.
Trump’s plan calls for a 3.8 percent reduction in the Department of Justice budget, mostly through cutting federal reimbursement to states for jailing undocumented immigrant prisoners. But just as important, the proposed budget would shift money to increase by 20 percent the number of “immigration judges teams” working on “removal proceedings” and would hire twenty more immigration prosecutors.
And in keeping with Bannon’s crackpot Leninism, globalization of the non-militarized variety gets targeted. The budget slashes funding to the State Department by 28 percent, including all of its climate–related programs, and much of its international education work. Cuts would reduce appropriations for multilateral development banks, including the World Bank. The proposed budget eliminates all US funding to the United Nations’ climate change programs. Peacekeeping, international education, and cultural exchange also take major hits.
In a sop to the imagined Trump base of angry old white people, the big social programs, Social Security and Medicare, are spared, for now. “We are not touching those now,” Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin has said.
Mulvaney, director of the OMB, which actually produced this budget, is a former Tea Party congressman, but as a Bannon-approved member of the Trump team, Mulvaney is not a deficit hawk. He and the rest of the Trump team justify the plan’s massive deficit spending by invoking the Laffer Curve, a Reagan-era gimmick which posits that cutting tax rates will radically stimulate economic growth and thus actually increase the government’s overall tax revenue. Trump campaigned on a promise to wipe out the entire national debt — not just the much smaller annual budget deficit — in eight years. Thus the Trumpians are projecting 3 percent growth or more.
However, the nonpartisan Tax Foundation has estimated that, even accounting for very optimistic assumptions of growth accelerating to 3 percent, Trump’s proposed spending combined with suggested tax cuts would increase the deficit by $2.6 trillion to $3.9 trillion over ten years.
Already some House Republicans are dissenting on the proposed budget. Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior member of the House Budget Committee, has said: “I don’t think you can do infrastructure, raise defense spending, do a tax cut, keep Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security just as they are, and balance the budget. It’s just not possible.”
In the Senate there are also signs of trouble. For example, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has called the assault on the State Department “dead on arrival.”
So where is this all headed? Funding for the current fiscal year expires on April 28, and without a budget there could be a government shutdown. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York might use the spectacle of a shutdown standoff to blast Trump’s policy agenda. But government shutdowns don’t play well.
Even before that, there is the issue of extending the temporary and self-imposed suspension of the “debt ceiling.” First enacted in 1917, the debt ceiling has been suspended more than seventy times since 1962, and fourteen times since 2001. The current suspension expires in late March.
Unlike other decisions, federal appropriations require sixty votes to pass — the amount of votes needed to shut down a filibuster. That means at least eight Senate Democrats would have to vote for the budget. Very interestingly, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, could easily change this rule and lower the threshold to a simple fifty-one senator vote, but he has chosen not to.
Why is McConnell not ready to remove the filibuster rule? It would seem that McConnell wants to avoid certain elements of his own party’s wish list for fear of enraging voters and wants to be able to blame Democrats for tying his hands. This makes sense when you consider that one out of every three people in Kentucky receives federally subsidized health care.
The technical term for all this is “shit show.” Stay tuned — it’s going to be a whacky spring.
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